rising in silence
floating feather light toward dawn
I first met Texas toadflax on March 23 of last year, while photographing spring wildflowers in a New Berlin, Texas cemetery.
When I discovered a group of the flowers beginning to bloom on Galveston Island’s west end a few days ago, on February 9, I thought our mild winter might have encouraged an early bloom. In fact, various sources indicate they’re right on schedule; in our area, their flowering begins in February and continues through May. Texas toadflax is one of three species of native North American toadflax; the bloom times of N. canadensis and N. floridanus vary somewhat.
The plant’s flowers, ranging from light lavender to light blue, are accompanied by a slender, downward-curved spur approximately 5-10 mm in length: longer than the flower’s calyx. The nectar-filled spur attracts bees, flies, butterflies, and moths; the caterpillar of the common buckeye butterfly feeds on the leaves.
Toadflax, of course, is an odd and interesting name. In her book Nature’s Garden, published in 1900, Neltje Blanchan explains it this way while writing about Linaria canadensis, or blue toadflax, known today as Nuttallanthus canadensis:
Wolf, rat, mouse, sow, cow, cat, snake, dragon, dog, toad are among the many animal prefixes to the names of flowers that the English country people have given for various and often most interesting reasons.
Just as dog, used as a prefix, expresses an idea of worthlessness to them, so toad suggests a spurious plant; the toadflax being made to bear what is meant to be an odious name because, before flowering, it resembles the true flax, linum, from which the generic title is derived.
Given the changes in customs and classifications over the years, Blanchan’s explanations can seem quaint or puzzling. What seems certain is that toads don’t lounge beneath the plant, and it never has provided fiber. It just blooms, reminding us that spring’s not as far away as we’ve imagined.
Although less common during the winter, the plant commonly known as sea ox-eye (Borrichia frutescens) can be found throughout the year on coastal salt flats, beach dunes, salt marshes, and tidal flats along the upper Texas coast, where it grows with such other typical salt marsh plants as glasswort (Salicornia virginica), saltwort (Batis maritima), saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), and seepweed (Suaeda linearis).
Ranging from south Texas to Virginia, it’s known by a variety of English names: sea ox-eye daisy, sea marigold, seaside tansy, and bushy seaside ox-eye. In Spanish-speaking countries, common names often compare the flower to other species, such as beach carnation (clavelón de playa) or sea purslane (verdolaga del mar) in Puerto Rico, and coastal rosemary (romero decosta) or marine sage (salvia marina) in Cuba.
For many people, ‘ox-eye daisy’ brings to mind Leucanthemum vulgare, a pretty white flower with a yellow center brought here from Europe and now often considered a nuisance. In his book Florida Ethnobotany, Daniel F. Austin notes that the name ‘ox-eye’ had been added to Borrichia frutescens by 1866, perhaps because of its vague resemblance to the European daisy. The genus name honors the Danish botanist Ole Borch, while the specific epithet refers to the plant’s shrub-like character.
Tolerant of both drought and standing water, the plant can bloom prolifically, with flowers approximately one inch in diameter. The grayish-green, pubescent leaves give the foliage a silvery sheen which becomes more pronounced as the plant dries and begins to set seed.
Because the plant blooms in every season, it provides both food and cover for a variety of insects, birds, and other small wildlife. Texas butterflies which enjoy its nectar include the great southern white, the Gulf fritillary, the large orange sulphur, and the southern broken-dash. I haven’t yet seen any of those butterflies this spring, but the sea ox-eye is putting on a fresh set of blooms, and I expect it to begin receiving visitors any day.